A Navy aviator — Clarence “Van” Vandenberg — made a name for himself as a heroic fighter pilot in 1954 and throughout the halls of Stanford University and IBM but his name went mostly unrecognized in Ripon.
Vandenberg, 88, passed away on May 4, surrounded by his family, after a lengthy battle with cancer.
The Ripon High grad lived across the street from Spring Creek Golf and Country Club before attending the University of Nevada, Reno and joining the Navy to become a fighter pilot during the Korean War.
In March of 1954, Vandenberg was flying off the coast of San Diego when a Cougar fighter jet spun out of control some 35 miles south of Coronado Island. The pilot successfully ejected and the jet righted itself at 4,000 feet. It subsequently climbed to 8,000 feet and resumed normal flight toward the San Diego shoreline and the famed Del Coronado Hotel.
A similar incident occurred months later with an F7U-3 Cutlass, where several fighters attempted to turn it around as well. The Cutlass flew in a clockwise circle for half an hour, first going out to sea and then turning beyond North Island and flying back toward the beach and threatening the Coronado. Several jets flew near the aircraft as it continued to descend with each of several loops attempting to change its course.
Using air pressure from a wing, the Ripon pilot flew alongside the runaway Cougar maneuvering to lift its wing with his and change its course. When the Cougar was turned too far, Vandenberg would fly along the opposite side and lift that wing, causing the jet to fly out to sea after it had sped toward Coronado.
He said later he hadn’t touched wings because, due to his speed, he hadn’t felt that it would have created a safety concern.
Lt. Vandenberg was presented a ceremonial key to the Coronado Hotel a week later and a front page recognition in the Los Angeles Times and a commemorative watch from the editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
He had been credited with numerous aircraft carrier landings prior to the incident with the pilotless fighter plane.
Following his active duty in the Navy, he applied to Stanford University and eventually graduated with an Industrial Engineering degree. Having what was described as a dynamic career, he moved his family from the Bay Area to Hong Kong and to England.
After retiring from IBM, he enrolled in an art school in France and excelled in both painting and sculpting. His love of art extended from North American artifacts to Asian and European. He spent his later years in Los Gatos and then between Rossmoor and Santa Fe.
A celebration of life was held for Vandenberg on May 14 in Los Gatos.
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